Omara


The vitality and joy of Omara’s performance still lights up the stage after all these years.

(2021) Music Documentary (Fourth Agreement) Omara Portuondo, Rolando Luna, Ariel Portuondo, Lester Hamlet, Santiao Alfonso, Arturo O’Farrill, Telemary Diaz, Satomi, Diego El Cigola, Rossio Jiménez Blanco, Yoshiro Hiroishi, Xiomara Vidal, Irene Jardines, Chucho Valdés, Aymée Nuviola, Roberto Fonseca, Pura Obrega. Directed by Hugo Perez

The undisputed grand dame of Cuban music is Omara Portuondo. She came to public notice back in the pre-Revolution days as part of the Cuarteto d’Alda along with her sister Haydee; they were mainstays at world-famous venues like the Tropicana and the Copacabana in Havana. But the revolution came and with it many thousands of Cubanos left the country, including Haydee who moved to Miami while Omara remained in her beloved Cuba. The two sisters have scarcely spoken since.

She is best-known here as a member of the original Buena Vista Social Club organized of veteran Cuban musicians by Ry Cooder, whose recording and concerts were filmed by Wim Wenders and led to Cuban music being discovered in this country in a big way. However in Cuba, Omara is clearly revered (and rightfully so) as a legend and a national treasure. She has been compared to Billie Holiday (and rightfully so) because of the emotional resonance of her voice; listening to her sing doesn’t just appeal to the ears but to the heart as well.

She is the child of an interracial marriage, something absolutely unheard-of back in the 1920s when her parents were first married (her white mother was disowned by her family for marrying an Afro-Cuban man), and long-time friends describe that she was the target of abuse because of it, although that is obviously no longer the case. Her voice is both seductive and sweet, caressing pop and folk songs from her native land with equal fervor. And for a 90-year-old woman, her voice is astonishingly pure; as people age their voices tend to get rougher but she has managed to avoid this. When asked her secret, she plays it coy but I’m certain there’s some sort of miracle involved.

Her story isn’t well-known here nor is her music, two compelling reasons to see this documentary. Being of Cuban descent, I do lament the continued embargo that is still in place and has accomplished exactly nothing; Zero. Zip. Nada. It has robbed America of generations of beautiful music, great baseball players and of enjoying one of the most beautiful places on earth. It has split families and robbed Cuba of the energy and drive that has been transferred to the U.S. by those who came over. It is long past time for the embargo to go away and for us to stop being idiots about communism. Cuba poses no threat to us. I’m no fan of the Castro regime, but both Cuba and the United States would benefit from the end of these unnecessary restrictions. If you don’t believe me, that’s okay; see this documentary anyay and just enjoy the wonderful music of a consummate artist.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is lilting and seductive. A lovely introduction to an artist who deserves more recognition in the United States.
REASONS TO AVOID: The non-linear storytelling may confuse some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Omara has been managed by her son for nearly forty years.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: DOC NYC Online (through November 28)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Buena Vista Social Club
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Children of the Enemy

Buena Vista Social Club: Adios


The music of Cuba is timeless.

(2017) Documentary (Broad Green) Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal, Ry Cooder, Nick Gold, Compay Segundo, Eliades Ochoa, Juan de Marcos González, Barbarito Torres, Gilberto “Papi” Oviedo. Directed by Lucy Walker

 

In 1997, American musician Ry Cooder discovered the seductive rhythms and melodies of Cuban music. Gathering together a group of aging Cuban musicians who continued to make vibrant and amazing music from their native land, he put together an album with literally an all-star group of Cuban musicians in what was a love letter to the island. German filmmaker Wim Wenders made a documentary about the tour that surrounded the album. The documentary he made, Buena Vista Social Club which was also the name of the album, were worldwide phenomena and made international stars out of the musicians that were portrayed, garnering major awards including Oscars and Grammys.

That was then, this is now. 20 years has passed since the first album and many of the musicians from the first film, who were already elderly when the album was recorded, have since passed on. This documentary acts both as prequel and sequel, giving us a little more insight to the development of son Cubano music and the people who made it stars, particularly Ferrer and Portuondo, the royal couple of Cuban music. The first third of the film concentrates on that, showing the two as they appear in variety show footage from the 50s and in Cuban commercials of that era, leading up through the revolution that changed the island forever and the eventual slide into obscurity – Ferrer was shining shoes two doors down from the studio where the BVSC album was recorded.

The middle third chronicles the rise of the Buena Vista Social Club and the effect of the album, tour and film on their lives and the fame it brought both to the music that in many ways defined Cuban culture and the musicians who created it. The concert footage is particularly joyful; there are outtakes from the original Wenders film included here (Wenders was one of the producers on this film although he declined to go behind the cameras for it) that remind us how the best music comes from the soul. Even if you’re not a fan of Latin music you can’t help but be seduced by the lovely melodies, insidious rhythms that almost compel you to dance and the lyrics which reflect the universal struggles and triumphs of life.

The final third is somewhat more melancholy, something of a “where are they now” segment as we follow the lives of the primary people chronicled in the first film in the years after the movie was released. Ferrer and Portuondo are the main subjects and they are engaging and delightful personalities. Ferrer passed away in 2005 and his death was mourned throughout Cuba but also in the international music community as well.

We also see the state of Cuba as being hopeful as it appears that relations with the United States are at long last going to be normalized during the Obama administration; sadly since the making of the film it appears all that will be for naught as the new President seems more inclined to leave things the way they are vis a vis Cuba. That adds to the melancholy.

I am myself of Cuban descent and although my father passed away in 1986 he loved to play the Cuban songs he loved as a young man on the piano in our home. I can still here those lovely melodies echoing in our living room as he would play. As I watched the movie in the theater, I could feel his presence and that of my grandmother who also loved the music well. Perhaps that makes me a little more inclined to overlook the faults of the film which to be quite honest isn’t nearly as good as the original documentary and doesn’t carry with it quite the same feeling of joy.

This is a somewhat bittersweet movie; there is some hope for the music as new musicians have moved in to play the same songs and perhaps writes some new ones. The music continues to thrive in Cuba and although it hasn’t had quite the success here in the States can still be found in places where Cubans congregate, particularly in Florida.

The best music comes directly from the soul as I said – and clearly the music of Buena Vista Social Club: Adios comes from that place inside these musicians that pulses with life and celebration. It also comes from the place that simmers with regret and disappointment. We all know these aspects of our lives and it is somewhat comforting to know that there is a soundtrack for it. Whether or not you are of Latin descent, music like this speaks to you on a primal level. We can relate to it because we are all human. Music like this is timeless and beyond borders; it goes to what makes us who we are. If for that alone, this is a documentary that should be seen. Sure, you can see it without having seen the first but to be honest I would recommend seeing the first if you are only going to see one of the two.- but you should see both.

REASONS TO GO: The music is timeless and amazing. The personalities of the musicians is exuberant and unforgettable.
REASONS TO STAY: It doesn’t quite hold up to the original documentary.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some material that’s a bit suggestive and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original movie and album were named for a Havana dance hall patronized by poor Afro-Cubans. The dance hall no longer exists.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Fandango Now
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hecho en Mexico
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: LA 92